The year polio won
Everyone must take responsibility for the epidemic of scientific mistrust and ignorance gripping the world and returning polio to the most vulnerable, writes Laurie Zoloth.
My aunt Martha had polio because there was no medicine in 1932 to prevent it and because she was poor – a child of an immigrant family who spoke little English. The children’s noses ran, their heads ached, and so it went. They did not take this middle child of five to the doctor until she awoke one morning in the bed she shared and said, “Papa, Papa, I am so stiff, I am stiff as a board.” She returned home months later, with public-issue crutches and braces which she wore for the next 90 years. They fascinated me as a child, the shining silver circles on her ankles that she hated so deeply; she would close her eyes and duck her head and turn away from my gaze. She is why my mother signed my brother and I up to be test subjects for the polio vaccine clinical trials. She is why I attend very closely to news about polio. This year, the news is the worst in decades, the worst since we stood in lines waiting for our shots from the white-coated nurses at school.
A decade ago polio was all but eradicated everywhere except in Nigeria and Pakistan. Today it is spreading again. The latest outbreak is in war-torn Syria where the government stopped its vaccination program. And now, as a result of the chaos and the flood of over a million homeless refugees, unvaccinated Syrian children live in tents near open sewage drains from which the virus spreads.
The story of how polio has made its comeback is not simple. It began in 2003 when radical Muslim clerics in northern Nigeria issued a ruling to block polio vaccination claiming it was a Western effort to sterilise Muslim girls. As Muslim clerical councils shut down the program, isolated cases spread. Villagers who made the Hajj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca, took the disease back home with them to India, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Ethiopia, Israel, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia.
But let’s not just blame Muslim extremists. The opposition to polio vaccination is astonishingly widespread. There are leftwing websites such as VacTruth that, remarkably, blame polio vaccines for the epidemic. The Liberty Beacon, a rightwing website, tries to convince readers that the epidemic is a plot by the UN and the drug companies to make profits. Anti-vaccination natural healing websites advise parents to avoid all vaccines: “who needs ‘em,” they say. It is odd to find Hollywood actors weighing in, inadvertently agreeing with Pat Robertson, the conservative politician, that vaccines are dangerous. These views line right up with Taliban theories that vaccination campaigns are a cover for CIA plots, and with some Pentecostal Church ideas about vaccines “interfering with God’s plan for healing.” In fundamentalist communities, regardless of ideology or which scripture is read, a shared praxis of suspicion has emerged.
Polio eradication is a moral question: what do we owe to the most vulnerable?
Suspicions were deepened by the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden hunt going under cover as a polio vaccination campaign, a cruelly careless tactic. In Pakistan, 40 nurses have been killed in the past two years. And large pharmaceutical companies have indeed hidden data to increase profits. One can credit both these organisations with creating a world in which nutty firebrands fan the flames of conspiracy on the internet and men with guns track and shoot aid workers.
Bioethicists, social scientists and journalists need to shoulder some blame as well for we helped sell the idea that the proper way to view the world was through a suspicious lens - until we reach the point where no authority, even one operating according to the proven facts of medical science, is believed. Should we be surprised when leftwing critics attack genetic research, or when rightwing critics attack climate change data, or when people from across the political spectrum mistrust science itself? Polio vaccination, one of our clearest collective duties to the children of the world, is now a casualty of the philosophical struggle for truth.
Polio eradication is a moral question: what do we owe to the most vulnerable? In this sense, it is a theological question, something well understood by the leading Islamic scholars who met this February. Their conclusion, as stated by the Grand Imam of the Holy Mosque of Mecca, was “that protection against diseases is obligatory and admissible under Islamic Sharia, and that any actions which do not support these preventive measures and cause harm to humanity are un-Islamic”. In May, authorities in London declared polio a public health emergency and made it clear that not only must the viral epidemic be stopped, the epidemic of ignorance and mistrust must be tackled as well.
Truth, said philosopher Hannah Arendt, is a fragile statement that must be spoken, heard and answered. It must be defended or it will be silenced. It is hard to believe that a world that has seen breakthroughs in stem cell science and cloning is also a world where children still wake up “stiff as a board” from polio, not because we did not have the science to know what to do, but because we did not defend the right to do it.